Upstairs, in the studio lounge, Jeff Calder holds court with some of the studio's employees, riffing like a cross between Lenny Bruce and Lester Bangs on topics covering everything from George W. Bush to the recent Masters Tournament. Around here, Calder is the self-proclaimed "resident hipster," freely offering his genteel brand of sarcastic running commentary.
He's impeccably dressed in hand- tailored clothing and owlish glasses, his high hairline peppered with gray. He looks remarkably like he did more than 20 years ago when his band, the Swimming Pool Q's, were beginning to make their mark.
One of the first local bands to tour nationally on the strength of a locally released album, the Swimming Pool Q's blazed a unique path to major-label success. Eventually recording for both A&M and Capitol during the '80s, the band's delightfully skewed mix of witty Beefheart-inspired weirdness and hard-driving rock long ago earned them a spot in Atlanta's music history.
Calder opens the door to the control booth -- marked with a modest gold plaque inscribed "The Calder Room" -- to playback the final sequence of the Q's new album, Royal Academy of Reality. "Hey, it's only taken 10 years for this thing to be ready to release," Calder says dryly.
Taking a seat behind the massive vintage Solid State Logic console, in the same chair Springsteen lounged in as he worked on The Rising, Calder cues up the CD.
The most striking thing about the first track, recorded 10 years ago, is how different it is from the Q's past body of work. "We knew it wasn't going to be club rock," says Calder as he adjusts the volume on the console. "We had become a proficient club band, but the direction as a songwriter I wanted to go was much different."
The Q's new album is a thick cosmic stew of varied instrumental sounds and psychedelic ruminations. Taking the deliberate, ornate feel of the band's '86 album Blue Tomorrow to an exaggerated interstellar level, Reality is a dreamy, spiraling trip into deep space.
Calder began work on the first three of the album's 20 tracks -- "Light Arriving Soon," "For No Reason" and "Skyland" -- in early '93. Many delays followed, compounded by Calder's bout with vocal paralysis from years of bellowing "Rat Bait" and other soul shouters.
Briefly sidetracked, Calder busied himself by experimenting with unusual instruments and softer vocal styles. With gear borrowed from Southern Tracks, Calder worked on vocals and overdubs. Four years later, the model for the album was set.
"I wanted it to be very poetic and very different. I wanted to make the guitar band concept work with other things," says Calder. "We could have just as easily done a record that would have been out much sooner. But, it would've been a consolidation of everything the band had done up to that time."
The '90s were a difficult time for the Q's. "The alternative world was changing into grunge and styles that weren't as open to us as in the past," Calder says. "We had to endure that. And that's the story of the band, we've endured."
The core of the band has remained the same since '78. Though bass players have changed, the constant Q's are Calder, Bob Elsey and Billy Burton. Singer Anne Boston left in the early '90s, but returned in '98.
While the album and alternative rock in general were in fragments, Calder worked in several music industry jobs -- in A&R for Interscope, then as producer Brendan O'Brien's right-hand man at two of O'Brien's Atlanta-based Sony-subsidiary labels, 57 and Shotput. "It was a great way of staying in touch with what was going on, seeing new bands, hearing new things."
During this time, Calder began inviting local players into the studio to add new sounds to the album. More than two-dozen musicians, including O'Brien, Tom Gray (The Brains), Samarai Celestial (Sun Ra) and Moe Tucker (Velvet Underground), contributed. Many non-traditional and exotic instruments, including clavioline, glass harp, dulcimer, bagpipes, muted trumpet, harpsichord, tamboura, sitar, chang and, yes, even some turntable scratching were utilized.
"Having additional people involved really challenged the guys in the band and kept things lively. It's part of staying in touch with the community," Calder says. "The world we came up in -- the late '70s -- just doesn't exist anymore. By the mid-'90s, that world was long gone."
As Calder continues playing selections from the new album, he dotes on each track like a proud father. The album, scheduled for national release by Bar None May 20, is his own personal Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper's combined.
The album's title, Royal Academy of Reality, represents Calder's term for the poetic mind. "Most people don't have a lot of money, so how can you get as much out of life as you can? The avenue for that is art and creating," says Calder. "So to me, it's not just a title of a record, it's the royal road to life."